This interview with the Mark Fosson originally appeared at North Country Primitive on 25th May 2015. We were very sorry to hear the news that Mark passed away on 2nd November 2018, aged 68 years. At the time of this interview, he had just self released an album of new material, kY, and was working with fellow guitarist Don Bikoff on a duo project provisionally entitled Old Men Noises. He subsesquently release one further album, Solo Guitar, via the Drag City label.
We are very pleased to bring you an interview with the last guitarist John Fahey signed to Takoma records, Mark Fosson. After Takoma was sold, Mark’s recordings for the label remained in his garage unheard for almost 30 years, until they were finally released in 2006 by Drag City. A further archival release, Digging in the Dust, a collection of early home recordings, was released by Tompkins Square in 2012. Fast forward to 2015, and Mark has just brought out his first ever new collection of instrumentals, kY, a paean to his home state of Kentucky, and mighty fine it is too - in our view, his best album yet. Recorded at his home in Baltimore, the album has a timeless, folk-infused quality and features Mark on banjo and dulcimer as well as an enviable collection of guitars…
Can you start off by telling us about the new album, kY? You appear to be revisiting your roots on two accounts: firstly, it has the feel of the sort of pure American Primitivism that could have been put out by Takoma any time in the 70s; secondly, the strong traditional folk themes suggest that you are literally revisiting your roots as a native Kentuckian.
I had been trying to record a whole other group of instrumentals that I had written and not getting anything I was really happy with. I was probably trying way too hard to come up with the perfect guitar album and being way too critical, which I’m prone to do. At a certain point I realized I wasn’t having any fun at all and decided to step away from it for a while. So next time I went down to my studio, I pulled out my banjo instead of a guitar and started noodling around and came up with Kingdom Come. I had just purchased a Tascam DR-05, so I made a quick recording of it and was totally pleased with the way it came out. I thought, why not do a whole new album that way? So I would sit and noodle every day till I came up with an idea I liked and record it immediately, while it was still fresh. Most of the songs are first takes, but I never did more than three takes and I think the tunes have a very spontaneous feel because of it. I used the Tascam on quite a few of the songs on the record… Kingdom Come, Kentucky, Cold Dark Holler, Come Back John. All the songs are inspired by my childhood memories of growing up in Kentucky. I recorded it at Pine Box Studios - a.k.a my basement.
What have you been up to recently? It’s been eight years since Jesus on a Greyhound came out. I’m aware of the live sessions you’ve done for Folkadelphia and Irene Trudel, but I guess you’ve been keeping busy in other ways…
I moved to Baltimore about six years ago and have been writing and playing every chance I get. Did a short tour with Daniel Bachman when our Tompkins Square records came out… Done quite a few gigs in Philly and New York, some with Don Bikoff, who has become a good friend. A lot of excellent young musicians out there I’ve had the chance to play with… Hope to do a lot more.
Were you pleased with the response to Digging in the Dust? Were these recordings what brought you to the attention of John Fahey and Takoma in the 70s?
Yes, I was very pleased with the response… it’s good to have it out there after all these years! These are the tapes I originally sent to Takoma. There were also five vocal tracks on that demo which John really liked. I’m not crazy about the way my voice sounded back then… like I was 12 years old! Luckily I’ve learned to sing a little better over the years. There was a song on the demo called Grandpa Was A Thinker, which John and his wife, Melody, liked a lot. I’m pretty sure it was that one and Gorilla Mountain that got me signed.
How did you link up with John Fahey and Takoma Records?
I had been listening a lot to releases on Takoma… I think I wore out a coupla copies of Kottke/Lang/Fahey. On a lark I sent the tape to them, never dreaming I’d get signed! I remember I had come home from work - I was working in a steel plant at the time - and had fallen asleep in my chair. My wife woke me up, saying, “There’s some guy named Charlie Mitchell from Takoma Records on the phone.“ Then when I got to California, John co-signed for a brand new Martin 12-string. I kick myself nearly every day for selling that guitar later on! As soon as I got to LA, I started opening shows for him… I think the first was McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, which was right next door to the Takoma office. His records sounded great, but hearing him live - and that close! - was an unbelievable experience.
How did Drag City come to release The Lost Takoma Sessions 29 years after it was recorded?
My cousin Tiffany Anders had started listening to Fahey and found out I had been on the label, so she asked for a copy of the recordings. They were gathering dust in the corner of the garage and I was reluctant to let her have them at first, because I figured the stuff was too old for anyone to care about. She proceeded to send it around and before long I had three or four offers from labels to put it out. I eventually decided on Drag City and I think they did an excellent job of getting it out there.
What was the musical journey you took to playing solo acoustic guitar? Did you do the whole garage band thing first or were you always attracted to acoustic music? And what were your formative influences, musical or otherwise?
Everyone in my family was a total music lover, so I was bombarded with good music of all styles from an early age. When I was in elementary school, Jean Ritchie would come and perform every year… that’s probably the first traditional folk music I was exposed to. I played a festival with her later on and at the after-show jam, I talked her into giving me a dulcimer lesson, which was totally cool of her. My Aunt Rachel sang and played guitar and I was always asking to play her guitar. I bugged her so much, in fact, that she gave me one of hers - a Beltone. What a beauty! That pretty much started me down the guitar road. Also my dad would buy 45s from the guy that stocked the jukeboxes in the beer joints he frequented and was always bringing home the cool, obscure music… lots of blues and extreme hillbilly stuff. Later on I became a Roger Miller fan and pretty much taught myself to play listening to his records. My grandmother was bedridden for a long time and I would go to her house and try the songs out on her. If I got her laughing I considered it a success.
Then at the age of 14, the Beatles broke and that’s when me and probably a billion other teenagers decided to become musicians. That turned into a succession of garage bands. Then in college I started getting more in to the folk music again. My buddy Dan Gore and I would spend hours at the school library listening to the old blues and Folkways records - The Harry Smith Anthology was a big favorite - and we began performing at the school’s coffeehouse every Friday night. It was run by my English teacher, Nancy McClellan, and she also organized some of the big folk festivals in the area. She may have encouraged me more than anyone to be a musician. Then when I was stationed in North Dakota in the Air Force, I began discovering the Takoma artists. I actually bought the Kottke/Lang/Fahey album because of the cool cover - I wasn’t that familiar with the artists at that point - and was blown away by it. I think the most influential album for me, though, is Peter Lang’s Thing At The Nursery Room Window. It’s still one of my top five favourite albums of all time. Which reminds me… I think Daniel Bachman forgot to give me back my Peter Lang CD!
What were you up to between the Takoma recordings and Jesus on a Greyhound? Did you keep making music during this period? Can you tell us how Jesus… came about?
When the Takoma thing fell apart, I continued playing around Los Angeles, Sometimes solo, sometimes with a small group. I played with a bass and tabla player for a spell - that was a great sounding little combo. Then in the mid 80s, I started a country rock duo called Crazy Hearts with Karen Tobin. We had a song on the A Town South Of Bakersfield compilation, along with Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale and Dwight Yoakam, then went to Nashville to showcase, but Karen ended up getting a solo deal on Atlantic Records and that was pretty much the end of the duo. Then I started a group called The Bum Steers with my good friends Edward Tree on electric guitar, Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Billy Block on drums. We caused quite a ruckus in Nashville: Porter Wagoner personally invited us to play the Grand Ol’ Opry, but I think we may have been a little too left-of-centre for that town. Anyway, after these two full-blown groups, I decided to get back to basics and perform solo again. Jesus On A Greyhound came about because I wanted to write an album’s worth of songs that sounded good with just voice & guitar. And although I did add some extra musicians to the record, the music is still drastically stripped down compared to what I had been doing. And totally acoustic.
At the moment there seems to be a veritable swarm of young players influenced by the American Primitive sound. Do you feel any particular affinity for them? Are there any favourite players who particularly stand out for you? When The Lost Takoma Sessions came out, were you aware of people like Jack Rose and Glenn Jones?
I started to become a lot more aware of the newer guitarists when Lost Takoma came out. I did a short tour with Joanna Newsom and she turned me on to a lot of the younger players. Of course I was aware of Jack Rose and was already a Glenn Jones fan. Then, like I said earlier, I did a short tour with Daniel Bachman and was really impressed with his playing. He’s on fire… seems like he puts out a new record every two weeks. Met Nathan Bowles through Daniel and I really enjoy his banjo playing, both solo and with the Black Twig Pickers. I’ve become friends with quite a few of the new pickers: through Don Bikoff I met Matt Sowell, who introduced me to Kyle Fosburgh, who introduced me to Hayden Pedigo. I got to play a duet with Hayden on his new record Five Steps. There is certainly no shortage of excellent young musicians out there! Lots of great records being made… I’m always checking out the new stuff.
You play banjo on a couple of tracks on the new album, which sounds fantastic. Are you a big fan of the instrument? Are we likely to hear more banjo excursions from you in the future?
Thank you… I love playing banjo! Seems like I don’t do it as much as I would like to, but it’s getting a little more frequent all the time. I keep saying I’m going to get a really nice clawhammer and get serious with it… someday! I was at a songwriter retreat in Stanley, Idaho, a couple of weeks ago and one of the musicians had a killer clawhammer with nylon strings that sounded amazing.
So what happens next? Any plans for gigs? Have you got more material up your sleeve?
Well I have at least five albums worth of material yet to record, so I’ll just keep plugging along and making new records. Been getting a lot of pressure to put out a follow-up to Jesus On A Greyhound, so that’s probably the next project up. Unless things change…which they do! And of course I plan to keep gigging as long as I can.
Mark Fosson recorded by Jesse Sheppard (more at Orthophonix)
Behind kY - Mark Fosson’s Track-by-Track Guide
We asked Mark about the guitars and other instruments he used on kY. He responded by sending us a track-by-track guide to the instruments played and the tunings, as well as a little background on each of the tunes.
Jimmy Leg Mule high strung Tacoma Road King [C -G - C - G - C - E]
You need to visualize riding this mule as you listen.
Loose Change 1995 Martin 00016GT [Standard Tuning]
The ‘loose change’ refers more to the chord progression than the amount of coins in my pocket. The way it sort of gets lost at the end and falls in a hole… I meant to do that!
When We Were Young 1968 Gibson B-25 12 String [A# - F - A# - F - A# - D]
I wrote this one for my grandparents, Harry & Grace Steed.
Kingdom Come Deering “GoodTime” banjo [G - D - G - A# - D]
Kingdom Come is a real town in Harlan County, Kentucky.
Indian Summer Tacoma DM1812E3 12 String [C - F - C - F- F- C]
Glenn Jones showed me this tuning and I proceeded to write about seven songs using it.
Dogwood Dulcimer was made by Robbie Long, San Geronimo, CA 1976 [A - A - A - D]
I often wonder if the fellow who built this dulcimer is still alive?
Simpleton 1956 Gibson LG2 [C - G - C - G - C - E]
There was a fellow named John in my hometown who would stand on the corner directing traffic & waving to everyone who passed. In the old days he would have been considered the ‘village idiot” but my folks used to refer to him as the ambassador of good will.
Cold Dark Hollow 1956 Gibson LG2 [D - A - D - F - A - D]
A cold dark hollow is an eerie place when the sun is about to go down… I tried to capture that feeling.
Avondale Strut Tacoma DM1812E3 12 String [C - G - C- E - G - C]
The part of town where the black folks lived… my romanticized idea of a regular Friday night there.
A Drink w/Stephen F 1995 Martin 00016GT [Std tuning]
Legend has it that Stephen Foster drank himself to death in the North American Hotel and left this world with 38 cents in his pocket. Which brings us back to the amount of coins in my pocket… let me check… hmmm …39 cents.
Bad Part Of Town Deering “Good Time” banjo [G- D - G - B - D]
There’s a ‘Bad Part’ in every town… And I’ve been to a LOT of towns
Kentucky 1990 Gibson J100 [D - A - D - F - A - D]
I’m not sure what this one is about.
Come Back John 1968 Gibson B25 12 String [ A# - F - A# - F - A# - D]
This is me trying my damndest to write a John Fahey tune… inspired by Sunflower River Blues, which John taught me how to play backstage at Bob Baxter’s Guitar Workshop, 1977.